Sunday, 20 November 2011

History Detective

Some antiques dealers, believe it or not will not give old things house room - they cannot live with the dog-eared, the shabby, the patinated... 
Treasure seekers like us, however, adore the tatty - we think it's divine! Not only that, if we are umbilically attached to the internet (and many of us are), we love nothing better than exploring the history of the intriguing pieces we find, whether searching for information on 18th century tin-glazes, pondering turned chair legs of the Regency period, tracking down the mark on a Chinese vase that could be worth millions - or, like me, researching clues that might help me learn a little of the history of previous owners.
It could be something superficially insignificant that draws my attention. Two Scottish samplers I found recently, embroidered by sisters, were backed with carefully salvaged paper (saved by Mother? Teacher?). These papers tell a story of their own, of a habit of re-use that we would do well to copy, and they would make beautiful minimalist prints themselves, framed and hung in a modern interior. One is an unfolded sugar wrapper stamped with the refiner's name.

The other is an uncut sheet of wrappers for Property Tax demands (On Her Majesty's Service), carefully patched in one corner with a small, incomplete piece of newsprint, on which, tantalisingly, can be glimpsed "...wound...lacerated...violently...proved fatal..."

Of course some things we find have more personal and detailed tales to tell -  like this gentleman farmer's almanac and diary for 1820. In this he doggedly records the daily weather and sometimes hints at his sadness "My beloved died this day, five years since..." and "Little Ann went to school."

 Most of his words tell us everyday things, in a matter of fact tone. Here are some entries for a week in February. 
"King George 4th was proclaimed King of England today. Wilson gave me a hare." 
"My Old Favourite little French dog Rover died today. He was my sister Mander's dog. He was buried by the harbour."

Sadly, despite searching every page, I haven't found this lonely farmer's name.


The soldier who made this beautiful patchwork, with its vibrant plushwork flowers worked on squares of woollen cloth from uniforms, is almost as elusive as the farmer. I noticed a little piece of string sticking out from the seam on the edge of it, looked further and found, hidden in the lining, a small note, hand-written by a loved one - mother - wife - sister? 

It reads - Made by George E K (H?) Jones of the Northants Regiment at Jersey in 1900. He died in France August 8th 1916 of wounds received in battle. Despite this precise and poignant information, investigations are still on-going.


This lovely embroidered set of pockets for sewing requisites etc., known as a "hussif" or "housewife", was also made by a soldier. This time his name is clearly announced - Henry Lighton.

I think I've found Henry in Sheffield Barracks in 1851, aged 10, born in East India. His father was a Staff Sergeant at the barracks, born in county Mayo, Ireland. Later Private Henry Lighton pops up in the 1861 Worldwide Army Index - then - he disappears.


Mary Dance looks bright-eyed and confident in this watercolour portrait, dated 1841 

   In 1841 she lived in crowded Knotted Alley in the heart of Nottingham, home of workers in the lace industry. She was clearly a young woman who took care of her appearance.

She married a mechanic, William Hemm, in 1851. She and William moved around the Midlands where his modern skills were in demand on the new railways and in lace factories. They had five surviving children, the youngest being the only girl, another Mary, with whom she lived until her death in 1900 back in Nottingham, her husband having died in 1889. A little of her history is pencilled on paper, pre-internet, and tucked into the back of her portrait, though it contains one mistake. In fact she was born in about 1817 and in 1841 she was not 18, she was in her mid-twenties and determined to get on with making a life for herself - if appearances can be believed.

Here is Betsy Kitely's Valentine, dated 1814.

We can only wonder if Betsy remembered the club feast - or perhaps she had a better offer...



  1. Fascinating post. Thank you for sharing these treasures. Lizzie

  2. I am right into the research of old things at the moment too...
    The gentleman farmer's almanac in its lovely leather case must be absolutely fascinating!
    Julie x

  3. I was interested to find the reference to Willliam Hemm (and Mary Dance) in your blog. William Hemm was an active Chartist in Nottingham before leaving for Manchester, and a leading member of the Lenton and Nottingham Co-operative Society after his retuirn to the town.
    Chris Richardson, Nottingham

    1. Thank you very much for this. We are fond of this little portrait of Mary and the link with the Chartist Movement & the 19th century struggle for political reform will make us treasure it all the more.

    2. David Hemm22 August, 2013

      Mary Dance was my Great Grandfathers Step Mother ,His father Being William Peck Hemm(1820-1889) .WPH was a well known and respected Member of the Co-operative movement around England A member of the Derby Coop soc. Nottingham CS where he served as a committee member,auditor and treasurer.. and a founder member of the Ilkeston Coop Society.He was a board member of the Cooperative Wholesale Society.At his funeral in 1889 the cortege consisted of the hearse and 14 mourning carriages.. I am his great great grandson David R Hemm.